by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
A breathless list of what you’re likely to see fifteen minutes before sunset on my Iftaar table: fruit chaat, a sweet and spicy fruit salad made mostly of apples from my yard, bananas, grapes, orange or lemon juice, chick peas, sometimes guavas and pomegranate seeds, dahi baray, chick pea fritters soaked in yogurt that is spiced with roasted, ground cumin and red chili, cholay, spicy beans, samosay, a deep fried beef- or potato- filled pastry. You’ll also see dates in a small dish and an assortment of frayed, speckled flowers from the yard. On a good day, you’ll see mint chutney, on most days, ketchup, Habanera, Sriracha. On a good day, sweet lassi, on most days, juice. During the countdown to Iftaar, which coincides with the Maghrib (sundown) call to prayer, a dinner item or two are on the stove, water is boiling for tea, and I’m in a frenzy to finish frying pakoray, chick pea fritters which must be served piping hot.
Needless to say, it’s hard to be in a good mood, to not feel drained after a day of fasting and an afternoon of cooking, but I try, as one must. When my children were old enough to reminisce, each of them remarked on how much they enjoyed the aroma and taste of Iftaar food: quite a dilemma for someone like myself who is not particularly in favor of having deep fried treats every day for a month.
If fasting for the month of Ramadan requires patience and stamina, cooking for Ramadan requires stamina plus a sustained effort to keep the home feeling like an island of festivity for the whole month, to keep up the Ramadan spirit against fatigue and a sense of alienation, as we try to meet work and school deadlines while fasting for up to 16 hours. We rarely change our regular routine, still attending meetings, taking the kids for soccer and piano practice, attending open houses and work parties. Self-discipline, and a quiet, unfussy, constant aim to rejuvenate inner peace in Ramadan is part of the Muslim life, but in the present climate of Islamophobia, I find myself needing to do more to shield the family during this time of reflection and private spirituality, from the news of violence and the violence of news, from outrage against being silenced, demonized, and consequent bitterness. Feast-like cooking, I notice, has become an act of self-preservation.
At a recent Iftaar-dinner for poet friends, I found myself commenting that an ideal iftaar is a simple, well-cooked, nutritious meal, and that Ramadan is not about elaborate iftaars, but about cultivating the spiritual self and renewing the bond with family and community by sharing in the hunger and the feeding, but I know from experience that it doesn’t work that way, that the Iftaar menu inherited from the culture gives a sense of atmosphere and nostalgia, constructs and punctuates tradition. So I chop the fruits and mix the chick pea paste, deep fry and garnish everything with chaat masala all month long, taking comfort and a measure of delight in the family’s expectation of the the month-long nightly party.